Friday, June 30, 2017

8 Tips on Seed Saving with Evan Ryan

Farmer Evan Ryan could be a modern cousin of Johnny Appleseed. In the folk story, Johnny wanders across the country with a bag of apple seeds and plants them wherever he goes. While Evan doesn’t wander around planting seeds in the Maui countryside, he confesses to being an inveterate seed collector and educator.

Farmer Evan Ryan talking about seeds at Omaopio Greenhouse.

At a seed saving workshop at the Omaopio Greenhouse, Evan explained why seed saving is important and gave advice to both new and experienced gardeners.

Why bother collecting seeds?
Evan believes that by collecting and growing seeds, we can develop new varieties that are uniquely suited to the soil in our area, resistant to pests and diseases, and adapted for our growing conditions while providing optimum nutrition and flavor. Even if our soils are depleted, we can breed varieties whose genetics enable the plants to mine nutrients. Seed saving clearly has many advantages.

For example, Evan asks us to consider an alternative way of dealing with cabbage worms: “What If we saved seeds for generations?” Instead of spraying Bt or another pesticide on the cabbages, we could develop varieties that naturally resist cabbage worms based on plants’ ability to produce a chemical response when eaten.  Evan cited an example of a caterpillar that ravaged certain trees on the East Coast. After generations, the trees changed their chemistry and became less desirable to that caterpillar. 

Omaopio Greenhouse in Kula.

Why did early humans begin to create different varieties of fruits and vegetables? Perhaps we found something in the wild that was edible and recognized a desirable trait. Perhaps it was a berry with no moisture in it. By collecting the seeds and planting them, then harvesting the best fruits, and replanting their seeds, over generations, we were able to create a new variety.

How long does it take to create a new plant variety?
Evan suggested it takes 6-12 generations to stabilize a variety.
For vegetables, it may take 30 months to stabilize a variety.
For fruits, this may take 2 or more years.

What is the difference between heirloom varieties and hybrids?
Heirloom seeds come from open pollinated plants that grow to be almost identical to the parent plants when they are self pollinated or pollinated only by plants of the same variety.  They have such strong genetics, that they breed strong and true.  

Hybrids are cross pollinations with other varieties to get desired traits. Hybrids will not grow true to seed. Evan prefers heirloom varieties. 
Beautiful seed saving workshop sign: Grow the change you wish to see in the world.

Collecting wet seeds vs. dry seeds
Wet seeds are from fruits and vegetables. Scoop the seeds out, rinse them, and let them dry.
Dry seeds dry on the plant, like lettuce, beans, or basil. Any chaff needs to be removed.
Tomatoes are a special exception – the seeds need to ferment: squish out the seeds from the tomatoes, add water and let them sit for 1-2 days to ferment, remove the coating that develops on the surface of the mixture, and then dry the seeds. 

Workshop participants separate pigeon peas from their pods. Seeds need to be very dry and mature. 
Rebekah Kuby and workshop participants sorting seeds.

Dry seeds often have leafy wings or other chaff. To separate the seeds from the chaff, one can put the seeds in a bowl and swirl and blow the looser material away. The seeds are heavier and will stay on the bottom. One other method is using a fan to blow the excess material away.  In his new book co-authored with Lehua Vander Velde, Hawaii Home Gardens: Growing Vegetables in the Subtropics Using Holistic Methods, Evan provides additional insights and tips on seed saving and gardening.

In the meantime, Evan shares these 8 tips on seed saving:

1. Bigger is not always better.
Saving the seeds from the bigger fruit or vegetable isn’t always the best idea. It may be big, but it may not be as tasty as its smaller counterpart. Or it may be more popular with bugs.

Evan discussing what seeds are best to save.

2. Seeds do not always grow true to form.
Some plants won’t reproduce and change, like dill. Dill has no issue with cross-pollination. It breeds within its own reproductive system, called inbreeding.

Outbreeding involves a transfer of pollen from other plants, like for squash. A single squash flower does not have both male and female parts.  Open-pollinated squash will not breed true to form if there are other squash varieties flowering. You don’t know what you’ll get by planting the seeds. Seed companies will use seed cages over their plants, separate them by space, or grow only one variety at a time. 

These squashes will not breed true to form, without help. Sometimes, squashes seem like the "tramps" of the vegetable world. 

3. Dryness is important.
Moisture is the enemy of seed preservation.  Once collected, the seeds need to stay dry. One way to keep seeds sufficiently dry in Hawaii is in the refrigerator. The problem is if seeds are moved in and out of the fridge constantly, they are exposed to condensation and can deteriorate. If seeds are stored outside the fridge, Evan recommends using jars.

4. Seeds do not store forever, especially in Hawaii!
Maybe in dry, desert climates, seeds can last a long time. Hawaii’s humid climate is harsh on seeds and after a year, their vigor and germination rate will decrease significantly. The longer seeds age, the more their vigor and strength diminish. For example, they may produce plants that the wind can easily blow over.  By the way, Maui is known for its strong, gusty winds, which pose a challenge to many gardeners.  Evan prefers to discard seeds older than a year. 

From direct personal experience, I know seeds do not store well in paper bags. Bugs love them.
5. More plants in the gene pool = better seeds.
A bigger population of plants produces more diverse and higher quality seeds. If you are saving squash seeds, then taking seeds from at least 10 different plants is recommended. If you can get seeds from 10 different plants growing from different places, when they breed, the genetics off their offspring will improve.

6. Save seeds from the best specimens. 
Collect seeds from the most vibrant and healthy looking fruits and vegetables. You don’t want to eat the very best squashes, yet save seeds from the puniest ones to plant.

7. Save mature seeds.
“The more mature a seed is, the better it is.” The eggplant may be too mature and overripe for eating, but the seeds inside may be perfect for saving.  

8. Best book on seed saving.
Evan recommends Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth. Evan's new book also contains a section on seed saving, and more tips for subtropical gardening.

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
In short, not all seeds are created equal, and not all seeds are worth saving. With practice, one can develop the best and tastiest varieties for one’s unique area.

Evan Ryan has organized seed saving workshops and organizing seed and plant exchanges throughout Maui. He manages Pono Grown Farm Center, his organic farm in Olinda, and has recently written a new book Hawaii Home Gardens, coauthored with Lehua Vander Velde. 

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Disclaimer: The links to Suzanne Ashworth's book go to Amazon to help offset the cost of writing this post. The links to Evan's book provide no monetary incentive for me. 


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